Class ‘Justice’

 

16-06-23 Dundee Sheriff Court

We always said it all depends on the sheriff – and we were right. Today SUWN activist, Tony Cox was found ‘guilty’ of ‘threatening behaviour’ towards  the lovely folk at the Maximus Work Capability Assessment Centre in Dundee, who were preventing him from accompanying a vulnerable woman to her assessment. As Sheriff Griffiths explained in his verdict, it was a question of whose evidence he preferred – and he preferred the evidence of the crown witnesses. Prefer was his term. Never mind that their evidence was riddled with (unchallenged) contradictions over what happened when and even if the police came into the building (they didn’t). Never mind that the woman Tony was accompanying insisted, despite persistent leading questions from the Procurator Fiscal, that Tony did not ‘swear’ or ‘shove’ the receptionist at the door.

We have always said that this should never have gone to court. That if the police had only stopped to ask the other side of the story before whisking out the handcuffs, this whole sad spectacle could have been avoided. And now we are facing the consequences of what passes as a justice system but seems as much concerned with searching for truth as the competitors in a debating contest.

The Fiscal’s portrayal of Tony as just there to cause trouble could not have been further from the truth. While we have emphasised the wider significance of this case, his reason for being at the Maximus Assessment Centre was simply to accompany a vulnerable woman who had specifically requested that he be there with her at her assessment, as he had done for other people before. On one previous occasion the assessor had asserted he could not take notes – and when he insisted on his right to do this and proved that it was permitted in the regulations, the assessor had called the police on him. On that occasion nothing went further, but that assessor had nursed her grudge against him, and it was her who insisted this time that he leave.  This time she asserted – again without evidence – that he had been banned from the building. Tony had insisted on taking this up with a manager and on his client’s right to be accompanied by a person of her choice. What the Sheriff chose to see as the Maximus receptionist being solicitous for the understandably distressed client, was actually her trying to persuade this vulnerable woman to go into the assessment alone, without the person she was relying on to help her; and – not incidentally – trying to persuade her that Tony was not her friend. Three Maximus employees were trying to prevent Tony from a simple bit of advocacy, while attempting to demolish his character in front of his client. And Tony tried to argue his case. He has a strong voice (after decades of public speaking) and he used it. But speaking loudly, and even raising your voice, is not a crime – yet. There was absolutely nothing on the CCTV footage to suggest behaviour that could be conceived as ‘threatening’: indeed he was mostly seated and generally leaning back in his seat too. He was there to represent and help someone and he was being careful not to compromise her situation or his ability to help others in the future. When he realised that they were getting nowhere and his client was anyway too distressed for an assessment, he left the waiting room, but he then found himself having to put his foot in the door to prevent the Maximus employees from keeping his client inside and continuing their pressure on her to go to the assessment without him. Far from him ‘shoving’ the receptionist, she was trying to kick his foot out of the way. And that charge of ‘shoving’ only got added to the original charge of ‘threatening behaviour’ in the course of the first part of the trial, which meant that there was not time to for us to challenge the lack of CCTV footage for that critical moment.

That this can have developed into a criminal case with a guilty verdict is simply a travesty. Tony was giving his time to help someone through the thicket of a punitive government bureaucracy – and even when he was arrested the SUWN made sure that she got the help she needed to get her ESA – but now another part of that bureaucracy has determined to punish and criminalise him.

This is part of a pattern. Arbroath Jobcentre had earlier tried to accuse Tony on a similar charge, but their evidence fell apart in court and the charge had to be withdrawn. And we have heard from people going into Dundee Jobcentre how the staff there do their best to tar the reputation of Tony and of the SUWN more generally. In Edinburgh, High Riggs Jobcentre has several times called the police on advocates from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty.

Anyone who had any illusions in our ‘justice’ system would have had them knocked out by observing this case; but the verdict was just the beginning. As the Sheriff and the lawyer parleyed over issues that might affect the sentencing, Tony felt compelled to protest that the sheriff had misquoted him, and when asked if he was ‘fit for unpaid work’, he replied that he already did community work. For the sheriff this was tantamount to insurrection. Sentencing has been postponed for four weeks so that they can get a Criminal Justice Social Work Report. And Tony has been told that if he doesn’t grovel and accept his ‘guilt’ and if he doesn’t demonstrate his ‘empathy’ with the Maximus employees who shafted him, he can expect a harsh sentence. Because, in the sheriff’s words, his ‘antipathy to authority was clear’. We certainly didn’t see anything today to persuade us that the authority of our legal system deserves anything other than antipathy.

Just as people on the receiving end of the new punitive ‘welfare’ regime are expected to take responsibility for not being ‘positive’, so the criminal justice system is determined to punish people for not being sufficiently servile – and the sheriff made it clear that he was not happy with Tony’s body language or facial expression. In our Brave New World you mustn’t raise your voice and you must take your punishment with a smile.

Well that’s their world – and in the real world where the rest of us live there is more work to do than ever, and Tony and the SUWN have no intention of taking a step backwards in our advocacy and in our campaigning. As if to remind us, within five minutes of sitting down for a drink after we left the court we had two phone calls from people asking for our advice. The DWP and their friends don’t like what we do because we are getting results. We are helping individuals to navigate through their traps, and we are drawing attention to what is wrong with the system. (In fact we heard another example of the cruelty of the system as we were protesting outside before the trial began. A man going past told us that he worked in a Universal Credit call centre and that people would ask him how he can sleep at night doing such a job. He told us that he often can’t and that he is desperate to find other work.)

Yet again we can take heart from the solidarity shown by our comrades – by our friends in Dundee and our friends in Glasgow Anarchist Collective and Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty who traveled across Scotland to be with us, and by all those who have contacted us from across the UK to show their support for Tony and for the wider fight for real justice. Together we will win!

These videos (by Glasgow Anarchist Collective) show Tony talking while waiting for the verdict and after sentencing.

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Psycho-coercion and workfare: fighting back

This talk by Lynne Friedli of Boycott Workfare was given to an SUWN public meeting in Dundee on 7 June. You can watch it here on youtube.

Lynne is a researcher with a special interest in mental health and social justice. She wrote: ‘I’m going to talk about the rise of psychological fundamentalism and what it means for people claiming benefits.

‘My main theme is psycho- coercion in workfare: the use of psychological interventions to discipline and punish claimants (for example mandatory training, psychological referral, psychometric testing , psycho-sanctioning e.g. for lack of motivation). But I’m also interested in thinking about psychology’s role in imposing the work ethic. The contribution of psychology to moral mantras of ‘work is good for you’ and the ‘work cure’ and the similarities in psychological coercion experienced by both claimants and workers, especially precarious workers, ‘negotiating the border zone between work and welfare’. As unemployment has become ‘job seeking’ – so job seeking – the pursuit of ‘employability’ – has become a career in itself. One that is supervised, scrutinised and managed by the private contractors of the welfare to work industry and also heavily promoted by public health. What is also clear is how narratives of institutional psychology are being used to undermine resistance to work and the legitimacy of ‘refusal to work’. So, the use of psychology in state attacks – economic and ideological – on refusal to work.

‘These developments – the rise of psychological conditionality, the creeping merger of health and employment, permitting the state to set therapeutic goals – raise profound ethical and human rights issues. Using examples of direct action in England by groups like Boycott Workfare, Recovery in the Bin, Mental Health Resistance Network and Disabled People Against Cuts, I hope we can discuss what fighting psycho-coercion means for political struggle. How we can escalate resistance to psycho-coercion in struggles around workfare, but also in the fight for better pay & conditions, as well as in the resurgence of anti work politics.’

Message of Support from Paul Laverty

We have received the following message of support from Paul Laverty, screenwriter of I Daniel Blake, directed by Ken Loach, the film that won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival:
“When we were researching the material for I Daniel Blake we came across overwhelming evidence of vulnerable people subjected to great pressure both by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and indeed the subcontracted companies carrying out the work capability assessments. On a trip to Dundee I personally witnessed Tony Cox and his colleagues at the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network giving solid practical advice to confused and sometimes highly distressed claimants. I have spoken to doctors who have been infuriated by the treatment of some of their patients who have been deemed fit for work despite serious illness. In this context the work of Tony Cox and his colleagues who accompany vulnerable claimants is a great service to the body politic. They are doing this on a voluntary basis, at no charge, because they are principled citizens who refuse to stand idly by while their neighbours are often bullied. Claimants have a right to be accompanied by an advocate of choice and if this right was respected in full by the DWP citizens like Mr Cox would not be in the dock, and a great deal of public expense would be saved. I have no doubt that the senior management of the DWP are determined to punish anyone who stands up to them; and once again, the vulnerable client, who was so upset that she could not continue to give evidence at the last court hearing now has to repeat the ordeal once again; one more person to the long list of those who have suffered unnecessary misery at their hands. DWP managers, shame on you. ”

Ken Loach Palme D'Or 1160 x 650

The Crown versus Tony Cox – and welfare activists everywhere: Part 2, Round 1

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To start with a bit of background. Last year SUWN activist Tony Cox was dragged through the courts after accompanying a vulnerable woman to the Jobcentre and correcting their interpretation of the rules. As their evidence of ‘threatening behaviour’ fell apart, the charges were dropped – but just before this was confirmed Tony was arrested again, this time attempting to accompany a woman to her Work Capability Assessment with Maximus and insisting on her right to be accompanied by a person of her choice. One might be tempted to think that the DWP and its subcontractors wanted to stymie effective advocacy…

This second court case came to trial today in Dundee.

We have heard evidence so far from three Maximus employees and watched the CCTV tape of the ‘incident’. The tape had no sound, but the Maximus witnesses added metaphorical speech bubbles to tell their story, attributing to Tony a variety of swear words. (Telling a convincing story is Maximus’ bread and butter.)

In his evidence, Tony explained that he had had problems with one of the Maximus assessors on a previous occasion when she claimed that he couldn’t take notes in the assessment, and then called the police when he protested and proved her wrong. This assessor was one of the three witnesses but was having major problems remembering what happened just 7 months ago, giving responses that bore little relationship to her original statement to the police.

The Maximus receptionist (who, of course, was ‘just doing her job’) had given the police a fulsome account of Tony’s aggressive demands for toilet paper, but she failed to make shit stick when this was compared to the CCTV video. However, she then slipped in an addition to the charges, claiming that at just the moment when he was out of the video frame, Tony pushed her. As Tony explained in his own answers, this was the moment when the receptionist was trying to ensure that he was shut out of the building leaving Fiona – the client who he was trying to help – inside to their tender mercies. Far from pushing anyone, he was attempting to keep the door open.

While it was a shock to have and addition to the charge that Tony had not been informed about, we were less concerned about the new CCTV footage that the Procurator Fiscal produced. After watching nothing happen outside the front door of the Maximus building for 10 minutes, the defence lawyer politely asked if we could be talked through what we were looking at, whereupon the Fiscal decided to stop the video.

The Fiscal turned far less amenable when questioning Tony. He did his best to rile Tony with persistent suggestions that he was just out to cause trouble. Tony refused to be riled, maintaining a professional calm as he explained that the SUWN wouldn’t do anything that would disrupt the processes people need to go through in order to get much needed benefits.

Although the Maximus evidence was riddled with contradictions, we were very aware that there are three of them, so the evidence from the woman Tony was accompanying was really important. She wasn’t called until about 3.30pm after waiting since 9.30 in the morning, and she was clearly completely overwhelmed by the formality of the court. Before Tony’s lawyer had asked any substantial questions she had broken down in tears and was unable to recover enough to continue. Rather than go ahead without key evidence, we had to ask for the case to be adjourned. We hope that, when it reconvenes on the 23rd she will feel able to give evidence via video link.

So much for the formal proceedings; but the action outwith the courtroom was equally worrying.

When we arrived, Tony was told by a court official that his lawyer wasn’t there and they had been contacted by the firm to find a local stand-in. It was a worrying 25 minutes before he found his lawyer and that story was put to bed.

Then a cheery policewoman called Tony aside to ask him about the speech he gave at our anti-workfare demo outside The Range, when he quoted allegations about sexual improprieties by management. A sensitive choice of moment.

When we got into the court, a police woman stopped me taking notes, claiming I needed permission from the sheriff. Permission was eventually forthcoming, and the policewoman was persuaded to apologise -claiming that she had not known that rules had been changed – but I still have a gap in my notes.

And perhaps most seriously, Tony’s lawyer was informed that a court officer had passed the sheriff a note saying that he suspected Tony of operating a recording device in his pocket when on the witness stand. Tony did indeed put his hand in his pocket, but only to pull out a handkerchief with which to mop an understandably sweaty brow.

Our conviction that Tony, and welfare activists generally, are the subject of a major attack by the state is only strengthened by today’s proceedings. As ever, we are proud to have comrades who recognise the importance of this case and of solidarity – including our good friends from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty and the Glasgow Anarchist Collective, who joined us outside the court in Dundee, and the solidarity protestors in Govan, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Doncaster and Kilburn.

Glasgow Anarchist Collective made this video of the protest outside the court.

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Basic Ignorance

Robots for a Basic Income

My excitement in discovering a programme on basic income on the BBC World Service (Business Daily, 2 June 2016) was decidedly tempered by the glib ignorance of the interviewer and the wilful ignorance of their professorial expert. After briefly discussing the Swiss referendum on the introduction of a basic income that is due to take place on Sunday, and the forthcoming Finnish pilot scheme, the programme turned to a proposal for a basic income for the UK. While the Swiss are talking about a basic income for an adult of 2,500 Francs a month, or around £21,000 a year, the UK proposal given used a figure of £4,000, which the interviewer was quick to dismiss as ‘pocket money’. But where does that figure come from? £4,000 is not enough to live on – but it is what a person over 25 currently gets on Jobseekers’ Allowance, rounded up. (52 weeks at £73.10 = £3801.) The miserliness of our benefits seemed equally unfamiliar to the (Canadian) professor of economics brought in to poor cold water on the whole idea, who described it as ‘much less than most people would be getting’ now. (He also didn’t seem to understand the principle of combining a basic income with changes in tax bands and tax rates to ensure that the overall system is redistributive and doesn’t give extra money to middle and high earners).  With such basic ignorance from the official ‘experts’ and (yes, again) the BBC, it is no wonder we have to struggle so hard to get a sensible debate.

The picture shows Robots for a Basic Income celebrating End of Labour Day in Zurich